Cine Gear: Virtual Reality Stitching Can Cost $10,000 Per Finished Minute

"We're trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work [in VR]," said International Cinematographers Guild's Michael Chambliss.
Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Today's virtual reality camera systems use multiple cameras or lenses with images “stitched” together to create the 360-degree environment — but that can be hard work and pricey, warned digital imaging technician Ben Schwartz during an International Cinematographers Guild panel on VR, held Saturday during Cine Gear Expo on Paramount's studio lot.

[There’s a company] that charges $10,000 per finished minute, and that sounds like a lot but that’s a pretty fair price,” he cited as an example. “Stitching is a multi-step process. You bring [the camera footage] into software where you are basically taking the multiple video streams together. Then you’re 90 percent there. But that last 10 percent is extremely hard and can involve compositing and rotoscoping.”

As a fledgling market, VR content creators are still trying to figure out how to make VR experiences — and how to monetize them. 

“VR and its potential an an entertainment medium is being widely debated," said moderator Michael Chambliss, of ICG, adding that from a production standpoint, "we're trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work., and not everyone agrees."

"VR is a new language," said VR director Celine Tricart, adding that with a 360-degree environment where viewers can look anywhere, "The question is, how do you direct the viewers attention? We can't frame anymore. How do you keep control of the story? Or maybe we shouldn’t do that? Maybe we should think about it as immersive theater — let the rules go away and just start from scratch.”

Added director of photography Eve Cohen: “In VR the blocking is so crucial; it’s a way to guide the viewer. You don't have specific frames anymore but you have perspective.” She added that this fall, she's embarking on a feature-length VR production.

Several speakers addressed the question of camera movement: Can you move the camera in VR, and if so, how?

"The similarity [with traditional filming] is you are drawing the viewers attention; in almost every other sense it's different," said director of photography Andrew Shulkind. "We tested Steadicam, Jib ... [but when you are shooting 360-degrees], any system for stabilization is in the shot [unless you remove it in postproduction.] That's part of the argument for 180-degree VR experiences, but that's less immersive."

Director of photography Evan Pesses, who has used a VR helmet cam for action sports, pointed out that from a camera movement standpoint, “everyone has their own idea of what you can and can’t do. For me, you need to have something that your are focused on [for action to be comfortable to watch].”

Added Schwartz: “Can you move the camera? That’s the biggest thing being discussed in VR. I think you can, but you need to be aware of what it feels like.”

Closing the session, ICG president Steven Poster asserted that "this is a cinematographers' medium and the technology is growing rapidly. I think you are going to see more of it in the fuure.”

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